The Black Death

Here you can find all important information concerning the Black Death.


Published in: on 12/20/2008 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

The different types of the Plague

There are four different types of the pest:

the bubonic plague (bubo = boil)

septicemic plague

pneumonic plague

abortive plague

All forms appear during a pandemic, but the most abundant forms are the bubonic and the pneumonic plague. However, out of a bubonic plague a septicemic one can arise if it is not treated. That septicemic pest can lead to a pneumatic plague and thus to death.

Bubonic Plague

The taint with the bubonic plague happens by the bite of a flea which carries the pathogen as an intermediate host. The bacterium multiplies within the flea before it is transferred to the victim. Due to the fact that the fleas were spread by rats which had also been infected by the pest great rat extinctions happen before the Great Plague spread amongst the human beings.

The incubation period lies between few hours and seven days. The symptoms are fever, head ache, pain in the limbs, indisposition and presyncope. Later there is impaired consciousness. The name bubonic plague refers to the enormously swollen and sore lumps located at the neck, in the axilla and in the groin. Those swellings are developed by the infection of the lymph notes and the lymphatic vessels around the flea bite. Those lumps can have a diameter up to 10 cm. Their colour is blue-black due to the inner haemorrhage within the lymph notes. The boils disintegrate after they have been diminished by losing pus.

The bubonic plague itself is not lethal and the boils heal themselves. However, due to the fact that the bacteria are spread around the whole body by the blood way, the bubonic plague can lead to a secondary pest form such as the septicemic pest or the pneumatic plague. These forms lead in 90 – 100 per cent of the cases to death.

The spreading of bubonic plague also depends on the season. In winter the transferring flea can only infest a host at temperatures above 12° C. Otherwise it is paralysed (àhibernation). The epidemic peak was reached in autumn because in this season the fleas reproduce.

The Septicemic Plague

The septicemic plague is created by the entrance of bacteria from their multiplying place into the blood vessels. The infection happens from outside, for example from open wounds or the bursting of pest boils. The pathogens in the blood spread all over the whole body within the blood stream. The infection causes high fever, shivering fit, head ache and general indisposition. Later there are extensive skin and organ haemorrhages, too.

The septicemic plague always leads to death within 36 hours, if it is not treated.

Today, lethality can be drastically decreased due to good medicine.

Pneumonic Plague

There are two different forms of pneumonic pest. The primary pneumonic plague infects people by droplet infection from human being to human being. The secondary pneumonic plague develops out of a bubonic plague. The pathogens enter the lungs via blood vessels and provoke there a septicemic plague.

The pneumonic plague is a more severe pest form than for example the bubonic plague because it avoids the immune barriers, such as the lymph nodes due to direct infection in the lungs. It begins with difficulty in breathing, blueness of the lips and bloody sputum, which has to be coughed out in an enormously painful way. Out of it a lung oedema can develop which leads to circulatory collapse. Untreated this infection causes death after 2 to 5 days. The incubation period lasts only 1 to 2 days and the lethality rate is extremely high with 95 per cent.

Abortive Plague

The abortive plague is the harmless variant of the pest. It often shows itself with light fever and a little swelling of the lymph nodes. After getting over of the infection the body produces specific antibodies which guarantee a long lasting immunity against all forms of the disease.


Published in: on 12/18/2008 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

What is Yersinia Pestis?

This is the biomedical term that depicts the bubonic plague and is named after its discoverer Alexandre Émilie Jean Yersin in 1894. Yersinia Pestis is the bacteria that pathogen (Erreger) that infected millions with the Black Death. Plague or Black Death is an infection of rodents (Nagetier) caused by Yersinia pestis and accidentially transmitted to humans by the bite of infected fleas. The disease follows urban and sylvatic (wäldlich) cycles and is manifested in bubonic (Beulen) and pneumonic (Lungenentzündung) forms. The Black Death was one of the great epidemic scourges of mankind. It swept across Europe and Asia in a series of devastating pandemics (great spreading) during the Middle Ages. This disease was responsible for the death of about one-third of the world’s population at that time. For largely unknown reasons, bubonic plague ceased to be an important pandemic disease. No major epidemics have occurred in Europe or North America in more than a century.

Yersinia Pestis 

Why do humans get infected – settle in the lymphocytes 


Yersinia pestis is primarily a rodent pathogen, with humans beings as accidental hosts when bitten by an infected rat flea.  The flea draws viable Y. pestis organisms into its intestinal tract Darmtrackt). These organisms multiply in the flea and accrete in the flea. Some Y. pestis in the flea are then regurgitated (ausströmen) when the flea gets its next blood meal thus transferring the infection to a new host.


Transmission of the Plague


While growing in the flea, Y. pestis loses its capsular layer this is the reason why human macrophages are unable to kill Y. pestis and provide a protected environment for the organisms to synthesize their virulence factors. Within hours of the initial flea bite, the infection spills out into the human bloodstream, leading to involvement of the liver, spleen, and lungs. The patient develops a severe bacterial pneumonia (Lungenentzündung), exhaling large numbers of viable organisms into the air during coughing fits. 50 to 60 percent of untreated patients will die if untreated.




As the epidemic of bubonic plague develops (especially under conditions of severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and heavy flea infestation [Befall]), it eventually shifts into a prevailing pneumonic form, which is far more difficult to treat and has 100 percent mortality.

 Plague Cycle

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The reaction of the physicians and pharmacists

With the breakout of the Black Death the people started to invent their own treatments and preventions. But those were mostly just superstitious believes and many ignorant man and women pretended to be doctors unlike to those who were trained.

The physician’s and pharmacist’s treatment of this time were not very helpful either. The medicine in those days was not developed and powerless against the plague. The physicians and pharmacists based on the teaching of astrology and body juices and believed in blood-letting although it was rather a weakening of the body. The infection was supposedly a failed mixture of the four body juices blood, mucus, yellow and black gall. Therefore bubones were cut open and burned out and the people were supposed to have a balanced diet to avoid a failing of the mixture. The knowledge of infection was not discovered yet.

Because the astronomy was one of the major parts of the physician’s studies, another far spread theory was the unfortunate position of the luminaries at that time. This was supposed to be recognized by the Miasma, a mist or vapor filled with parts of rotten material and identified by its nasty and foul smell, which was supposedly causing illness. The people were supposed to avoid tasking their bodies and taking bathes for not opening the pores so the Miasma could not enter the body. The Miasma was supposedly coming from Asia to Europe or from vapor of the earth’s interior. Based on this theory the idea of an infection from person to person was unthinkable.

This theory was regarded as the most scientific one and was translated in many European languages.

At the beginning of the 17th century, based on this idea, the physicians developed the protective costume they wore when they came to see the sick. The beak-like mask was filled with herbs and spices to filter the Miasma from the air.

The most common treatment of the physician was the burning of herbs or other aromatic matters. Special “Burning Pans” were invented and a complicated mixture of venom, opiates and toad-powder was acknowledged as an effective antidote (Gegengift). Also the houses of infected people got locked up and smoked out to kill the disease.

The most successful treatment though was leaving home, fleeing as far away as possible, remaining there for a long time and returning late.

Studying the human body in anatomically was paid more regard to than before the plague and therefore, based on long-term consideration, the pest caused a change from the galenic to modern medicine and empiric science.




Pestarzt in Schutzkleidung Doctor Treatment of a Patient Treatment of a Patient

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Consequences of the Black Death

Peasant Uprising and Economy

The plague claimed a lot of victims. Whole towns were depopulated, a quarter to a third of Europe’s population was assumed to be killed. The great fear of death and the desperation paralysed the people. No-one cared for wealth anymore which resulted in very small prices for everything. Cattle, sheep, crops, everything was left to itself and the Black Death also fell over animals. In addition a high shortage of servants made “normal” farm business difficult. Previously Medieval Europe was overpopulated and the land-owning classes had access to inexpensive manpower. After 1348 servants demanded higher wages. The higher cost led to higher production costs and therefore inflation. King Edward III reacted to this with the “Ordinance of Labourers” ( in June 1349 and the “Statue of Labourers” ( in 1351 which forbid the servants to move around and search for the best paid work. It should ensure that servants get paid the same salary as before the plague. If not following this, they would be fined and imprisoned. But with such a lack of workers and even nobody to take away the bodies of the plague-victims, those bulls did not succeed.
After society had recovered from the plague the lands were cheaper and more food was available for less people. The capital per head increased. Houses and fields of people who had fled as well as those of the families that have died of the plague were deserted. This land was now available to the peasants that had survived; there was less competition for resources. Peasants gained more power and instead of taking up year-long contracts, they chose temporary jobs with higher salaries. The upper class tried to stop those changes in society. On the one hand with regulations on wages and prices and on the other hand with the “Sumptuary Law” issued in 1363. A law that regulated what people could wear, so that peasants in their new wealth would not dress, act and live like the upper class.

Those changes in society were contributing factors to the Great Revolt in 1381 which was the beginning of the end of serfdom in England.

Mass Burials

There were even no workers to take away the dead bodies. It was an old custom to get buried in the family grave. And the last rites were essential in a time of religion in which the fear of hell and the purgatory were huge. People had to be collected and thrown into mass graves; ditches, that were filled to the top with dead bodies. There was not enough consecrated ground at the churches either. But in the end people were more concerned to get rid of the dead and infectious bodies than about their afterlives. But other victims were terrified by the thought of dying without the last prayer in indignity.


(from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)

(from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)


Separation of Society

The plague divided society in the dying and the living. It tore away friends from each other, millers from bakers and parents from their children. The plague did not care about old or young, rich or poor. The dying were quarantined and the living fled. It happened that whole families were left in their houses to die, no-one to care for them, no-one even feeding them. They could be forbidden to leave the house and often they were not able to either. Often the village only noticed their death because of the smell of rotting bodies.

“One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.” (from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)

During the time of the plague the surviving had to watch how their loved ones died and had to live with the fear of close death themselves. Trying to stay alive, they had different ways of changing their lives to the extremes.

Some believed enjoying themselves, drinking, singing, amusing them- satisfying every appetite, would keep the plague away from them.
“Taking refuge and shutting themselves up in those houses where none were sick and where living was best; and there, partaking very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and other such diversions as they might have, never allowing themselves to speak with any, nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or the sick.” (from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)

Others placed confidence in living in abstemiousness. They shut themselves in houses, where there were no sick people, avoiding any excess, the talk about the disease, were eating and drinking only the finest goods temperately and passing the time with music and prayers.
After the plague had vanished again, leaving people without their loved ones in a miserable economic position, the questions about the reasons for this epidemic came. There were different assumptions, one of them being that the Jews had poisoned the wells. This was estimated since Jews did not use the water from the public wells considering their religious obligation to be ritually clean. 60 large and about 150 smaller Jewish communities were completely destroyed and Jews had been burned at the stake.

(from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)

(from Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, 1353)

In Egypt the Muslim women were the scapegoat. Apparently they tempted men into sin and therefore God had sent the Black Death.

Go to: Progroms against Jews


Published in: on 12/18/2008 at 12:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Black Death and Church


Before the Black Death hit Europe, almost all things, especially elements of daily life, were under the influence of the church. In medieval times, even boiling an egg took “the time to say a prayer”. But the most important thing was that the church had always told people right from wrong. Since the afterlife was judged more important than the actual lifetime, it was considered essential to be given the last rites and to confess sins before dieing to be sure of salvation.

When the plague arrived, people believed it to be a punishment of God. Therefore, they often turned to the Church for help. But since the priests and bishops could not actually offer a cure or even an explanation, the Catholic Church lost a lot of its influence and for many people, their view of the world changed drastically.



People reacted differently to the mysterious disease. While some people turned to contrition and prayed for salvation, others turned to debauchery and increased sinful behaviour; they argued that nothing mattered anymore if everyone was to die anyway. Superstition, scapegoats, religious fervour and fanaticism were only some of the things that were considered a possible solution to the problem of the Black Death. Some believed that ringing the church bells (which was done in all kinds of crises) would drive the disease away. Others expressed their feelings and thoughts about death and the afterlife in art (like poetry, sculpture or painting). Yet another way to cope with the Black Death was shown up by the flagellants. But even with different reactions, everyone felt the wave of fear, hysteria and panic that swept over Europe and that even the almighty Church was unable to stop.


Flagellant processions started in 1348. These men travelling from town to town hoped to be purged in order to stop the “wrath of God” by whipping themselves with leather thongs. Usually, the men were welcome in the towns because the represented a major event in the otherwise dull city life. In 1349, the movement clashed with the Church at Rome, since both claimed to have found the only right way to be purged from sins. When the plague diminished in 1350, the processions vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared.

On the one hand, the flagellants are seen as fanatics that actually spread the plague even further because they carried the dangerous bacteria with them. But on the other hand, they might have helped the people to cope with the Black Death. Many citizens had lost their friends and families and needed a way to purge of guilt and anger or just a diversion from all the suffering. And it is said that some people did confess their sins or gave back stolen goods because the flagellants made them regret. Finally, there were miraculous tales like those of a child being revived from the dead or a talking cow. They encouraged the idea that flagellants were more effective than church leaders and gave the people something they could still believe in.




The formerly good reputation of doctors and priests declined as they did not know what to do.

They experimented with different measures and while some of them actually did help, most of them only added to the confusion. And even though there are some stories about doctors and priests caring for the sick selflessly, there were far more about those who deserted their posts, about doctors who only told people to go to confession and about priests that refused last rites.

Most of the clergy that had not fled their posts contracted the deadly disease when taking care of its victims. With fewer priests but more and quicker deaths, Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the Black Death and allowed confession to one another or „even to a woman”.

But the sick and the dead were still not properly cared for concerning religious matters. There were too many bodies so that mass graves were dug. These were against the teachings and beliefs people had had before. But they did not know any other solution and often just did not care about those teachings anymore, since the plague seemed to show that they had not been right.

The new priests after the epidemic were often less educated and more inexperienced than their predecessors. This also led to a worse reputation of the church.

Another important aspect was that the church became richer. On the one hand, there were lots of bequests to the Church. On the other hand, the church started to charge money for some of their services.

So overall, there were three big aspects leading to a decrease of belief in the Church. First, there was the failure to help the suffering, then the incompetence of the new priests and finally the wealth while everyone else was suffering.

Since there had been neither help nor explanation from the Church, nor had promises for cures been kept, people started to question religion or even started to revolt against the church. These were the seeds for the Reformation.

Of all the Church members lost during and after the time of the plague, not all were actually victims of the disease. Some only turned away from the church that had always seemed powerful but could not offer any help at the time of an enormous crisis.


Published in: on 12/18/2008 at 12:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Important events of the 14th century

1299: Founding of Ottoman Empire

1309-1377: Papacy transferred from Rome to Avignon, France

1320: Reunification of Poland

1327: Edward III becomes King of England

1328: Phillipe VI ascends throne ignoring Edward III´s rightful claims

1337: Edward claims the French throne, the Hundred-Years-War begins

1347: Plague strikes Sicily

1348: France struck by the Black Death in January;  England in August

1357: The Scottish win the second War of Independence against England

1360: Recurrence of the Plague

1369: Recurrence of the Plague

1381: Peasant´s Revolt in England

1400: Renaissance in Italy

Published in: on 12/11/2008 at 2:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Spread of the Black Death

1)    The Transmission of the Black Death:

The Black Death is transmitted by two ways. The transmission of the bubonic and the septicemic plague are transmitted with direct contact with a flea, e.g. be the bite of an infected flea. The pneumonic plague is transmitted through airborne droplets of saliva coughed up by bubonic or septicemic infected humans.


The bacteria are called Yersinia pestis. They live inside the flea and block the stomach of the flea. Due to this the flea feels very hungry and bites greedily a host. Since the stomach of the flea is blocked, it can not solve its hunger and as a result the flea starves to death. The host ( human or animal) is soon infected by the bacteria as well.

The pneumonic plague is transmitted differently. It is transmitted by the droplets sprayed by the infected ones. The bacteria enters the lung of human beings and starts to attack the lungs and throat. 


2)    The Spread of the plague

 The Black Death is said to be started in Asia the first. The causing of the plague is in the 14th century said to be the changing of the air, deadly haze, swarms and invisible insects. The invasion of those insects into the blood circulation of human bodies causes an alteration in the bodies. It is also been said that the Jews have poisoned the springs.

After most of the soldiers of Khan Djam Bek’s army got infected and died because of the infection, Khan catapulted the dead bodies over the city wall into the city of Kaffa, which is located near the Black Sea. After the Tartars left the city, Kaffa started to trade again, and so the spread of the infection began: over the Constantinople the plague reached Sicily. After a while, it reached also Pisa and later the whole northern Italy. From there the pest spread northwards to the whole Europe. The pandemia raged between 1347 and 1351 between Greenland and Constantinople and took ca. 25 millons of lives. This amount is nearly a third of the population of the occident during that time.

The pest had its climax every 9 to 12 years. Bursts of the Black Death occurred however yearly.

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Superstitious beliefs about the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century



Pestilence in Europe between 1345 and 1355 is said to describe one of the biggest catastrophes in human history. Millions of people died, alone, right in the midst of enormous widespread deaths. Moral values and the sense of responsibility were abrogated due to panic and immense fear of dying. This and added mercilessness, as well as the well-understandable attempt so save oneself caused avoidance of other people and huge brutalization of society and conventions.


But trying to escape death and disease by searching shelter in religion, trustfulness and self-flagellation brought no safety. Many people stayed in church all day, others began to confess their sins and started self-chastisement, prosecution of Jews came up, pets were slaughtered, looting was at the order of the day.


All this because people believed, that the wrath of God came over them. Antics didn’t know about the principle of the contagion, they had to revert to the knowledge of the antic physician Hippokrates and his successor Galen, who thought this infection to be a mixed compound of the four humours blood, mucus, yellow and black gall. So medieval doctors couldn’t imagine a contagion from animal to a human being – they rather believed that bad smelling winds, so called miasmas, carried the disease out of Asia to Europe or that it was caused due to steams out o the interior of the earth. Others said, that the Black Death was to be traced back on evil humours carried in the air or earthquakes releasing poisonous fumes. In Europe, even Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells, an explanation which was impossible for the outbreak of pestilence in England thanks to Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

It was also blamed on sin.

If one was asked, what the cause of pestilence was, what its physical cause was, one would get the answer that sin was the cause.  If one was asked by what means could someone save himself from it the one would that it arises from the sea, as the evangelist says: “There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves.”

There was strange advises about what to do:

          Windows should only be opened in a northward direction

            Day sleeping as well as hard work should advance the breakout of the disease and be avoided

          A wet and sticky climate and wind from the south was supposed to be dangerous, as well as the air above stagnant waters in general.


Black Death was supposed to be attracted by the beauty of young girls. Actually more men than women and more young than old people died.


The devil was of course also taken as a reason for the outbreak of pestilence.  By the power committed to him he makes the seas rise up high, and by this is voiding his poison, sending it forth to be added to the poison in the air, and that air spreads gradually from place to place and enters man through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, pores and other orifices.  

Now the church got into the action: If man had a strong constitution and a strong belief in god, nature could expel the poison through ulcers, and if the ulcers putrefy, are strangled and fully run their course, the patient will be saved, as can be clearly seen.

But if the poison should be stronger than man’s nature, so that his constitution couldn’t prevail against it, the poison instantly lays siege to the heart and the patient dies within a short time, without the relief that comes from the formation of ulcers. These, altogether superstitious attempts were seen as scientific explanations through the whole of Europe. Most of the people believed Jews to be the reason for the disease. There were rumours about Jews poisoning the wells and springs in the beginning of the year 1348. By this the belief of the Jews to be helpmates of the devil also became popular, at latest when they, under torture admitted to be guilty. So, superstitious attempts in medieval times were the first step to Anti-Semitism and all kinds of aggressions, as well as pogroms against Jewish people in the 20th and the 21st century.

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The Black Death in Numbers

From 1347 to 1350 the Black Death struck Europe:

·         In less than two years 30% to 60% of the population of Europe was wiped out.

·         Nearly 75 million died in western Europe alone.

·         18000 people died in London in the course of three years.

·         Almost 1/3 of the worlds population had died from the plague by 1350.

·         Estimates go from 100 to 200 million deaths worldwide.

·         The mortality rate of the bubonic plague was 30% to 75% percent.

·         Within 1-7 days the first symptoms occurred, including fever, nausea, headache and an infection the lymph nodes.



The “Spanish Influenza” of 1918 killed 25 million in one year
Within 7 days the disease occurred in every state of the U.S.A. and struck France a week later.                                                                                                                           Two weeks after that it struck China and again 2 weeks later it was spread throughout Africa and Latin America.




Simon Shama: History of Britain Vol I 



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